The Anatomy of Online Bullshit in the Fog of Impending Doom

By Tom McKay on at

On early Friday local time, the U.S. assassinated high-ranking Iranian official Qassem Soleimani and multiple other people with a targeted airstrike at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq. Or they were killed on the battlefield in a totally legal, non-assassination, depending on who you believe.

The White House portrayed the killing of Soleimani, a major general of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and commander of its elite Quds Force, as necessary to prevent an imminent attack on U.S. personnel. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said in a statement that the strike was “aimed at deterring future Iranian attack plans”, but Iran views it as an act of international terrorism and a grave escalation of U.S.-Iranian tensions that so far have mainly played out through shadow conflicts waged by regional proxies. While Donald Trump and crew say they stopped a war, the killing may in and of itself qualify as a de facto act of war – and with the Iranian government promising retaliation, any miscalculation by either side could potentially lead to an all-out one.

Stateside and in the short term, the killing has largely acted to rally Trump’s conservative support – and trigger a tirade of criticism from many of his opponents, who worry he made an impulsive decision with little regard for its potentially sweeping consequences (and perhaps to distract from his domestic political crises). In 2020, that also means we are headed into another disinformation hell fuelled by Internet rumours, lies and propaganda. Here’s some of what to watch out for.

Iraq War Claims on Repeat

Obviously it’s not 2003, the West is not about to invade Iraq, and the strategic realities are quite different this time around, so it’s not unreasonable to reach a different conclusion about how all-out war with Iran would go. It would be far worse.

For one, Iran is a far stronger adversary than Saddam Hussein’s rickety Iraq was, with advanced defences, much greater capabilities to wage asymmetric havoc against U.S. interests in the region and a population size and land area that would make it far harder to do some “regime change”. The land invasion of the much weaker Iraq quickly became one of the greatest geopolitical catastrophes of the 21st century, and the U.S. could count on even less support from its allies this time around.

Fortunately for catastrophes, the same crew of hawks that sent U.S. troops barrelling into Iraq is now spreading bullshit about how its quavering enemies in Iran will fold over at the drop of a hat. You should ignore these people.

Here’s former Trump national security adviser John Bolton advocating for “regime change in Tehran”. Bolton, who served as undersecretary for arms control in the George W. Bush administration, was a leading proponent of disinformation about Iraq’s non-existent nuclear and biological weapon stockpiles. In addition to Iraq and Iran, Bolton has done his best to advocate for armed conflict with North Korea, Venezuela, Syria and Libya. (He also tried to play up unfounded claims that Cuba had biological weapons and was a “terrorist” threat to the U.S.)

Ari Fleischer, the Bush administration’s press secretary until the first few months of the Iraq War, took to Fox News on Friday to claim, “it is entirely possible that this is going to be a catalyst inside Iran where the people celebrate this killing of Soleimani”. Fleischer became notorious for exaggerating and misrepresenting intelligence on Iraq before the war (such as it unquestionably having WMDs and playing up fictional ties to al-Qaeda) and is still trying to rehabilitate Bush of the whole lying thing.

Alongside Fleischer was Karl Rove, a senior Bush administration official who chaired the White House Iraq Group, which began laying the foundation for U.S. war with Iraq in 2002 (and with a game plan that relied on utilising intelligence as propaganda to justify the conflict). Rove was widely cited as the then-anonymous White House aide who told journalist Ron Suskind that he was part of the “reality-based community” that believes “solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”, whereas, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

There’s also a bunch of people with a specific fixation on bringing the U.S. to a military confrontation with Iran whom you should ignore. The New York Times sought commentary from Michael Doran, a hawkish Bush administration security official and Iraq war advocate who more recently played a role in trying to shred the last remaining components of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Doran’s argument was that preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons depended on “a prolonged coercive strategy, one element of which, but only one, is the threat of war” and “that the more successfully the United States transmits a readiness for war, the less likely war will become”.

The paper also turned for quotes to Mark Dubowitz, the chief executive of the arch-conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, leading Iran hardliner and consistent opponent of the nuclear deal.

Straight-Up Bullshit

A massive amount of misinformation has been circulating around Soleimani’s demise, ranging from sloppy misstatements and misleading snippets to outright falsehoods and delusional exaggerations.

In one incident, a reporter with the Jackson Free Press took a screenshot of a tweet from Eric Trump on December 31st stating that the U.S. was “Bout to open a big ol’ can of whoopass. #DontMessWithTheBest #USAUSAUSA.” The reporter initially billed that as evidence that Eric Trump was informed of his father’s decision to whack Soleimani in advance, which would be a stunning breach of protocol (and mean that the president blabbed to his own son about the decision before he informed Congress). The claim spread far and wide, gathering thousands of retweets and likes, including from verified reporters and commentators. Eric Trump deleted the tweet, sparking additional speculation he was trying to cover the matter up.

In reality, Eric Trump was quote-tweeting a post referencing the arrival of U.S. Marines at the embassy in Baghdad on Thursday (ironically from Jack Posobiec, a prolific conspiracy theorist). The Jackson Free Press reporter has since issued a correction, saying he was misled by partial logs from PolitiTweet, a tweet-archiving service that subsequently updated its service to provide more clarity around quote tweets.

While the U.S. president may very well have bragged to his children that he was going to order someone blown up at an airport, there’s no publicly available evidence to suggest that’s the case. His son may have deleted the tweet simply because it gave that impression.

Claims that U.S. Marines arrested several major Iraqi political leaders including Head of Parliament Hadi Al Ameri also spread on social networks including Reddit. U.S. officials have not announced any such action, Iraqi officials have denied it, and it’s been noted that the 5,000-7,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq likely lack the capability to drag senior Iraqi politicians through Baghdad streets without running into insurgents or the Iraqi military.

Similarly, Fox News Middle East Senior Field Producer Yonat Friling circulated a photo on Twitter purporting to show a street in Tehran with Farsi-language graffiti translating to “Thank you, Trump” or “Good job, Trump” – which gathered thousands of retweets and likes, as it supported the narrative of a popular well of support inside Iran for the killing.

Even were it true, the graffiti would pale in comparison to the tens of thousands of Iranians shouting “Down with USA” and denouncing U.S. crimes in the streets of Tehran on Friday. Soleimani is widely regarded as a war hero embodying popular resistance to U.S. oppression inside Iran, according to the New York Times.

In reality, the graffiti dated back to at least May 2018, when it appeared in a YouTube video. While American University associate professor Pedram Partovi confirmed to Gizmodo that the Farsi translated to general praise of Trump, one of the earliest people to post it was supposed Iranian activist Heshmat Alavi. The Intercept previously reported Alavi is a fictional persona run by fringe opposition group Mujahedin-e Khalq, which is sometimes called a cult and actually operates out of Albania.

Incorrect reports of Iranian retaliation have spread far and wide, such as a post from New York Times journalist Farnaz Fassihi spreading “unconfirmed” reports of Iranian missile attacks on U.S. bases (sourced to Telegram channels run by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, no less). The post got 1.6k retweets and 1.6k favs; the correction got a fraction of that number.

Screenshot: Twitter

Meanwhile, posts on social networks (jokes... mostly) have speculated about the possibility of the return of the U.S. military draft or the start of World War III, neither of which seem particularly likely at this time.

There’s also just straight-up bullshit circulating in the American right-wing media, such as ludicrous claims that ongoing impeachment proceedings against Trump somehow mean he is no longer bound to seek congressional approval for military action, or that Soleimani was responsible for the deaths of 600,000 U.S. troops. (That would be more than the total number of U.S. deaths in the Civil War or World War II.)

While these examples are mostly homegrown, the Iranian government has already demonstrated some cyber warfare capability (if not nearly on the level of other powers like Russia or China) and reportedly operates influence operations posing as legitimate news sources online. Given how quickly misinformation spreads during crises, expect Iranian assets to contribute to the dogpile.

The lesson here is pretty simple: don’t believe claims made by accounts you’ve never heard of and have no reason to trust, claims made with dubious sourcing like an Iranian paramilitary force or TikTok videos, or claims from anyone who cashes paycheques from Fox News. Instead, put forth the token effort to verify claims from a second source.

Emotive Propaganda

Social media is always full of appeals to emotions like anger, national pride or fear – it has to make money somehow, right? During the Iraq War – which began before Twitter, Facebook or Instagram existed – the political climate became dominated by nationalism, claims that opponents were unpatriotic traitors or liars, and marginalisation of dissenting voices. This should sound pretty familiar to anyone paying attention to the Trump presidency, which now has those platforms at its disposal.

For example, the U.S. president celebrated the strike on Twitter by uploading a 220 x 116-pixel image of an American flag.

Another tactic is to blur the facts on the ground to make it seem as though U.S. actions in the Middle East are part of a coherent regional strategy rather than a catastrophic forever war. For example, Trump retweeted the post below from the editor in chief of Al Arabiya suggesting a link between the death of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in 2019 and Soleimani’s demise.

While both men were opponents of U.S. foreign policy, their respective paramilitary organisations were at war with each other. The intent is to flatten a complex regional problem into a simplistic us vs. them problem: you’re either with us or against us.

Trump has also leaned on other Twitter users who have cast the issue as a morally simple question of whether Soleimani deserved to die for his actions against U.S. forces. This is an obvious attempt to shift the focus of the debate from whether the U.S. president is risking the continued destabilisation of the region, or even an avoidable war, with rash decision-making – as well as a thinly veiled maneuver to avoid discussing whether the steadily escalating U.S. tactic of targeted assassinations is a violation of domestic or international law.

Several experts cited by CNBC claim this action has incredibly far-reaching consequences and may be more consequential than the U.S. killings of Osama bin Laden or Baghdadi. Soleimani was trusted with vast power by the highest authorities in Iran and his name was sometimes floated as a possible.

“It will require sophisticated diplomacy and fine touch strategy neither side has shown to keep this from escalating into broad-scale violence in the Middle East,” former CIA acting director John McLaughlin wrote in intelligence newsletter The Cipher Brief, according to CNBC. “... Especially now that the U.S. has claimed responsibility.”

But as important as he was, Soleimani was just one man – and the Trump administration may have traded a brief moment of chest-thumping for freshly infuriating an Iranian government that could simply replace him. Per the Atlantic:

His death doesn’t decapitate anything. He had the blood of tens of thousands of people – overwhelmingly fellow Muslims – on his hands, but he was only the agent of a government policy that preceded him and will continue without him. His deeds are beside the point; so is the display of American resolve. The only reason to kill Soleimani is to enter a new war that the United States can win.

... Killing Soleimani will only lead to more violence, perhaps much more. The victims will likely include Americans in the region and vulnerable civilians in Iran, including those who long for a better life than their rulers will allow them but have had to unite with their hard-line tormentors against a foreign aggressor.

He Was Coming Right at Us

Finally, there’s the official U.S. government justification for the attack, which was that it was necessary to avert an imminent attack of some kind – though it has provided few, if any, details on what attack was prevented and how imminent it was.

In a statement to reporters in Mar-a-Lago, Trump argued that Soleimani was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel, but we caught him in the act and terminated him. We took action last night to stop a war. We do not take action to start a war.”

Vice President Mike Pence tweeted a list of “atrocities” perpetrated by Soleimani, claiming that “Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. The world is a safer place today because Soleimani is gone.” Pence also suggested that Soleimani had assisted the hijackers in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks (the official 9/11 Commission report did find evidence Iranian officials may have facilitated transit of al-Qaeda operatives but no evidence they were aware of any attack plans).

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s feed stated he had talked to numerous world leaders and conveyed that the administration’s intent was “de-escalation”. During an appearance on Fox & Friends on Friday, Pompeo added that “The president’s been pretty clear. We don’t seek war with Iran. But we, at the same time, are not going to stand by and watch the Iranians escalate and continue to put American lives at risk without responding in a way that disrupts, defends, deters and creates an opportunity to deescalate the situation.”

A statement from the U.S. Department of Defense on Tuesday noted prior attacks on U.S. forces it said were directed by Soleimani, including this week’s attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, but did not clarify what imminent threat he posed beyond “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region”.

Little other detail was forthcoming, though Pompeo said the attack was based on an “intelligence-based assessment”. Republican Senator Marco Rubio claimed on Twitter that Soleimani had been preparing a “coup” in Iraq at the behest of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that would precede attacks on U.S. assets, but he provided no evidence. Meanwhile, the State Department urged all U.S. citizens to depart Iraq “immediately.”

Former U.S. ambassador Chas Freeman told Reuters he couldn’t think of any other time the U.S. has openly killed a foreign leader during peacetime, saying, “In times of peace? Never. This is unprecedented.” A Politico article suggested Trump had given the military permission to assassinate Soleimani in advance, rather than suddenly finding him as a target of opportunity.

The White House will, in the coming days, have the chance to clarify exactly what threat was imminent enough to risk war, assuming that is actually what happened and not, say, some other reason entirely. Moreover, it’s already clear that “de-escalation” is the opposite of what has happened since. Per the New York Times, the U.S. is deploying thousands of troops to Kuwait, while Khamenei issued a statement reading in part, “forceful revenge awaits the criminals who have his blood and the blood of the other martyrs last night on their hands”.

Featured photo: Atta Kenare/AFP (Getty Images)